What the Superforecasters Say About When the Fed Will Lift Rates

Has Fed's Rate Waiting Game Left It at Mercy of ECB?

You’ve asked everyone else about when the Federal Reserve will move on interest rates. Now try someone with a shot at getting it right.

They’re the prognosticators dubbed “superforecasters” by Philip Tetlock, the Toronto-born researcher who gained renown in 2005 by showing that almost everyone making predictions fails. The key word is “almost.” Tetlock’s new book finds that a few people actually have some skill when it comes to predicting the future.

So what do they say about the Fed? According to this group, which Tetlock describes as focusing on historically anchored “base cases" before delving into minutia, the first U.S. interest rate increase since 2006 probably isn’t going to happen this year.

“They say liftoff is more likely after January," said Warren Hatch, the chief investment strategist at Catalpa Capital Advisors and one of the group. “My own personal view is that the markets are underpricing a liftoff at the December meeting. However, I’ve learned to trust the wisdom of my fellow superforecasters."

After the first year of a “prediction tournament” organized by Tetlock, 59 people out of 2,800 emerged with a record of accuracy intact. The group outperformed the rest by more than 60 percent by the fourth year, and 70 percent of them kept their edge from one year to the next. Tetlock says they’re not geniuses and their skills can be learned.

Superforecasting the Fed

“There’s a Goldilocks zone, a moderate temporal distance, in which it’s possible to cultivate probabilistic foresight,” Tetlock, co-author of “Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction” (Crown, 352 pages; $28), said in an interview. The book is about “correcting bias and improving judgment.”

So what’s the secret? Start with an “outside view,” says Hatch, who provided written responses to questions from Bloomberg on how he would tackle a Fed rate-rise projection. Expert analysts get bogged down in details, he said, like what the futures market is predicting, what the latest employment data are showing, and what Fed officials are saying.

Superforecasters “want to know the bigger picture,” Hatch said. “Under what circumstances has the Fed started raising rates in past cycles? How about other central banks around the world? That helps set an initial base rate on which to base their forecasts.”

Fine Tuning

Then they turn to details, adjusting from the base estimate to make predictions, but without overreacting to spot economic data, said Hatch. The conclusion of his fellow superforecasters -- that the Fed will hold off until after January -- aligns with what futures traders are predicting. The March meeting is the first with more than a 50 percent chance of an increase, the contracts show. The chance of an increase on Wednesday is 4 percent.

Superforecasters’ estimates are more precise, and they’re less prone to anchoring themselves to a misplaced gut reaction, according to Tetlock. He says weaker analysts often make one of three responses to a question: something is a certainty, it’s never going to happen, or that there’s a 50/50 chance. A superforecaster would be just as likely to cite a 49 percent probability, or any other number.

To get more accurate results, the best follow a strategy laid out by physicist Enrico Fermi, and break seemingly impossible questions into smaller parts, says Tetlock. For example, Fermi’s puzzle of how many piano tuners are there in Chicago can be approached by guessing how many pianos there are and the number one person can tune.

New Information

Others’ forecasts “rely on the nearest tools to hand, they tend to get updated infrequently, and -- here’s a critical key to it all -- they typically lack a clear way of consistently and systematically comparing those predictions to what actually happens,” Hatch said.

Superforecasters make better initial guesses and then press their advantage by updating predictions regularly, according to the book. While they have above-average intelligence and numeracy, much of superforecasting seems to be a state of mind. Its disciples are cautious and humble, and believe their craft can be improved.

The study is already being put to use. Good Judgment Inc., which grew out of the project, is offering consulting services based on its findings. Tetlock is looking ahead to his next project in a career that has highlighted the need to keep score. The superforecasting book appeared in the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction this month.

“The thing that unites superforecasters, across ability levels and ideological points of view, is a shared view that probability estimation is a skill that can be cultivated,” Tetlock said.

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